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WOMEN'S AM: Defending champion enjoys relaxing first day (6/24)

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By Chuck Jones

By CHUCK JONES cjones@thenewsenterprise.com ELIZABETHTOWN — The first day of the Women's Kentucky State Amateur Championship can be an intense day. Players are trying to earn one of the 31 coveted spots in the championship flight. The rest of the tournament is match play, but on the first day, stroke play – one single round of 18 holes – determines what flight a player is put in. Sounds nerve racking, right? It is for everyone except the defending champion, which is given the No. 1 seed in the championship flight. The lucky dog, so to speak, this year is Jessica Grace. While other players were sweating it out while watching the scores posted on the board at Elizabethtown Country Club, Grace, a business teacher at Henderson County High School, was nowhere to be found. She had played 12 holes during her practice round before deciding to leave the course. “It was very relaxing,” Grace said of her Monday afternoon. “It was a totally different Monday. We took our time hitting different shots and I got a pretty good feel for the front nine. They were moving pretty slow, so we quit after 12. But there was no biting the fingernails or anything like that. I like to be in that position.” Heading into the 82nd Women's Kentucky State Amateur Championship, Grace, who defeated Morgan Cross in last year’s championship, admitted she thought the pressure of trying to repeat would be a big deal. But that hasn’t been the case. “I actually got a chance to play with my coach at Murray State (Velvet Milkman) and she put it in good terms for me,” Grace said. “Last year, I finally won and I have nothing to prove. I just want to go out and play and enjoy it. Being the champion has been great for a year.” This year will be different for Grace. Instead of her husband, Nathan, carrying her bag, her father, Bob Widman, will be her caddie. Nathan is home with their two sons – 3-year-old Aidan and 17-month-old Keegan. “It’s a different relationship,” Grace said of the difference between caddies. She said her father has only been her caddie two or three other times. “I think I’m a lot nicer to my dad than Nathan. I have a tendency to snip at Nathan at times. My dad has a calming affect on me. We’ll see how we handle it.” Entering last year’s tournament, Grace said she had played only three rounds of 18 holes and one practice round. This year, she has played more, including nine holes every Thursday as part of a league she joined. Grace also finished second in a tournament, firing a 69 on the second and final day of the event to go from last to second in the championship, which she said “gave me a little confidence.” Grace, who played at Murray State, thinks the 5,567-yard, par-72 course is going to be difficult to navigate. She said she worked on different shots with different clubs from “every imaginable position.” “We worked out a game plan,” Grace said. “The greens are going to be pretty tricky. I think if you can shoot even par each day, you’ll be in pretty good shape.” Although the course could be a challenge, match play, on the other hand, is a different story. Grace seems to excel in the format, reaching the finals three times. “I love match play,” Grace said. “I like the idea if you can have one bad hole, but it doesn’t ruin the round. You’re not playing the golf course; you’re playing the person. I love to compete and I feel like I can beat anybody if I play well.” Grace begins her quest for back-to-back championships today as she plays April Butler in her opening-round match. The last player to repeat was Whitney Wade, who won three straight from 1999-2001, but Grace is approaching it much like her practice round Monday. “It was wonderful to win,” Grace said. “My parents were there because of my cousin’s wedding. Nathan was on the bag. My teammates and family were there. My aunt and mother-in-law were watching my kids and they pulled up on 18 right at the end. It was a special moment. It was really awesome. “I paid my dues,” she added. “There are really good golfers on that trophy and now I’m on that list. That’s something no one can take away. It was a magical moment.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at 505-1759